Thursday, November 16, 2017

AAPL still looks good

I've been a fan of Apple's ever since I bought the stock about 15 years ago. I've had a number of posts on Apple over the years, all of which have been bullish. I'm still optimistic about Apple's prospects, even as it approaches the $1 trillion capitalization mark.

I got my new iPhone X a few days ago, and it is by far the most beautiful and exciting of all the iPhones I've ever had (and I've owned every model they've made). Face ID is surprisingly fast and seamless (and accurate!), the display is much larger and a pleasure to look at, the build quality is superb, the battery life is much longer, the camera is much better, and the gestures that replace the home button are powerful and easy to use, not to mention it's wicked fast. It costs more than its predecessor (iPhone 8), but it delivers much more at the same time. Since my digital life revolves around this little jewel, I'm happy to pay extra, and I'm sure tens of millions of others will feel the same way. Apple can no longer be accused of not innovating. Its flagship product has leapfrogged the competition, and it's become the "apple" of everyone's eye.

The iPhone X is going to set sales records. Face ID is almost surely coming to Apple's entire product line over the next year, and that will very likely trigger a wave of upgrades. But the market, believe it or not, is still not convinced that Apple's best days lie ahead. Apple's cash-adjusted PE ratio today is less than 17, giving it an earnings yield of 6%. That implies, in my judgment, that the market still suspects Apple will have a hard time increasing earnings. If expectations were solidly behind continued earnings gains, Apple's PE ratio would be a lot higher. Following are some nifty charts which tell the story.

Chart #1

Wow. One of the Great American Success Stories, told in one chart. (Note the y-axis is done with a semi-log scale.)

Chart #2

If the market were wildly optimistic about Apple, it would be tough to recommend the stock. But as the chart above shows, Apple's PE ratio has been below 20 for the past seven years, even as its stock price as more than quadrupled. As I've suggested in my prior posts, the market has consistently under-appreciated Apple's ability to grow. And that still looks to be the case, with the S&P 500 trading at a PE of just under 22 (using earnings from continuing operations), and Apple's PE trading at more than a 10% discount to that. If you adjust for the mountain of cash that Apple has sitting offshore, Apple's PE ratio is trading at almost a 25% discount to the broad market.

Chart #3

As the chart above shows, Apple's earnings haven't grown nearly as fast in recent years as its stock price. In the past 5 years, earnings per share have grown over 45%, while the stock price has more than doubled. The way I see it, the market has become a lot less pessimistic about Apple's prospects in the past 5 years, which is why Apple's PE ratio has increased from a meager 10 in early 2013. But the market is still cautious.

Chart #4

Is a $1 trillion capitalization reasonable? Apple is not outrageously priced compared to other companies, as Chart #4 shows. Microsoft today is only $250 billion behind Apple's current market cap, and most of what MSFT sells is software and services. This chart is a great David vs. Goliath story, with once-tiny Apple leapfrogging its gigantic former rival. 20 years ago the market thought MSFT would control the entire PC market within a few years. Today Apple has made tremendous gains, but they still don't have a majority of smartphone sales, nor a majority of PC sales. There's plenty of room for Apple to grow.

Chart #5

One final note: I could be wrong, but it strikes me that Apple has set an important precedent with the pricing of iPhone X. Prior to this, Apple (and most of its competitors) routinely brought out better, faster, and more capable products for the same price as what was being replaced; customers were thus getting more and more power and features for the same price. Now, for the first time, a hi-tech computer product has come out that is not only better but more expensive. Apple has demonstrated pricing power in an industry that has suffered from 20 years of deflation. You can see that in Chart #5 above.

The BLS uses what is called "hedonic pricing" to calculate that personal computer and peripherals have effectively fallen continuously over the past 20 years—if you get more of something for the same price as before, its price has effectively fallen. The index in the chart has fallen by more than 96% over the past 20 years. But it should also be apparent that the rate of decline has been slowing ever since the early 00s. In the initial heydays of PCs, prices fell 35% a year; then 20% per year; then 10% per year. In the past 12 months, prices have fallen by a mere 3.3%. The pricing and the success of the iPhone X may be among the first signs that in coming years you can expect to pay more in order to get more when it comes to computers.

Full disclosure: I am long AAPL at the time of this writing, and have no plans to sell in the near future.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The yield curve is not a red flag

In the past week or so I've see more and more people worrying about the flattening of the Treasury yield curve. I've also seen breathless stories about how the nation's malls are emptying, subprime auto loan defaults are surging, and student loans are defaulting. While these are all disturbing developments, a lot of other things will need to happen before the economy is at risk of falling into another recession. In that regard, I note that credit spreads are still relatively low, swap spreads are very low, real yields are very low, inflation and inflation expectations are right where they should be, and the financial system has tons of liquidity.

The following charts put some meat on my argument, and all contain the most up-to-date data available as of today.

Chart #1

The first chart sums it all up: it's Bloomberg's index of all the factors that contribute to financial market conditions. By this measure, financial conditions are about as good as they get. The following charts drill down into these factors to see how they stack up and what they mean.

Chart #2

The chart above is one of my favorites. It shows that two things have preceded every recession since 1960: real interest rates (blue line) have risen sharply, and the Treasury yield curve has gone flat or inverted (red line). That's another way of saying that the Fed has been the proximate cause of every recession in modern times. They have tightened monetary policy to such an extent that the economy just couldn't take it anymore. Until 2008, when Quantitative Easing started, the Fed tightened policy by withdrawing bank reserves from the financial system. Banks need reserves to back up their deposits, so when reserves become scarce they must pay more to get the reserves they need: this pushes up short-term interest rates. It also results in a general scarcity or shortage of liquidity. Rising rates and tighter liquidity conditions start eroding the economy's underpinnings. The economic and financial fundamentals deteriorate until people are forced to sell and panic ensues.

Chart #3

This time around, however, things are VERY different. Because of Quantitative Easing, the Fed can't tighten like they used to. They can't even begin to make bank reserves scarce enough to forces short-term rates higher. As Chart #3 shows, there are about $2 trillion of excess reserves in the system: way more than banks need to back up their deposits. The Fed gets around this by paying interest on reserves, which it never did before. In the old days banks always wanted to minimize their reserve holdings because they paid no interest. Nowadays banks don't worry so much, because reserves pay interest that is close to what T-bills pay; reserves are an asset today, whereas they were a deadweight loss before. By increasing the rate it pays on reserves, the Fed directly impacts all short-term interest rates without there being any shortage of liquidty.

So this tightening cycle that we are now in will be very different from past tightening cycles, because it will be a long time (years) before the banking system approaches the point at which bank reserves become scarce—the Fed is going to unwinding its balance very slowly. The Fed can "tighten" by raising short-term interest rates, but they can't create a shortage of liquidity like they did before. So it's not surprising that despite higher short-term interest rates and a flattening of the yield curve, there is as yet no sign that financial market conditions are deteriorating, as the following charts demonstrate.

Chart #4

Chart #4 shows the 40-year history of the Treasury yield curve. The bottom two lines show the yields on 2- and 10-yr Treasuries, while the top line (blue) shows the difference between the two (i.e., the slope of the yield curve). Here we see that flatter and inverted curves are always the result of short-term interest rates rising by more than long-term interest rates. That's the Fed in action. We also see that the yield curve can be fairly flat, as it is today, for many years before a recession hits (e.g., the mid-90s). To really squeeze the economy, you need not only a flat curve but much higher interest rates and a shortage of liquidity.

Chart #5

Chart #5 shows the real yield curve in action. Real yields are the true measure of how high or low interest rates are. A 10% yield in a 10% inflation environment is not a big deal, but a 10% yield in a 2% inflation environment is a killer. The blue line is the Fed's real short-term interest rate target. Currently it is about zero, or it will be next month, when the Fed will almost surely announce that the rate it pays on reserves will rise to 1.5%. That's just a tiny bit less than the underlying rate of inflation (1.6%), according to the PCE core deflator, which is the Fed's preferred measure of inflation. (PCE Core inflation is typically about 30 to 40 bps less than CPI inflation.)

As the chart also shows, the front end of the real yield curve is pretty flat. What that means is that the market doesn't expect the Fed to tighten much more after the December meeting. The 5-yr real yield on TIPS is effectively the markets' expectation for what the real Fed funds rate will average over the next 5 years. Note that prior to the last two recessions the real yield curve inverted: the blue line rose above the red line. That meant that the market expected the Fed to start lowering interest rates in the foreseeable future, because the market sensed that monetary conditions were beginning to undermine the economy's fundamentals. That's not the case today.

Chart #6

2-yr swap spreads are among my most favorite indicators, because they have been good leading indicators of economic conditions. In normal times, swap spreads are 10-30 basis points. Today they are 18 bps. Just about perfect. That means that liquidity is abundant and systemic risk is low. The financial markets are not worried at all about widespread defaults or a liquidity squeeze. The Fed hasn't tightened at all, by this measure.

Chart #7 

Chart #8

As charts 7 and 8 show, credit spreads are fairly low. Despite the news of defaults in certain sectors of the economy, investors by and large are not worried much about widespread defaults. This also tells us that the Fed hasn't really tightened at all. Corporations can borrow as much as they want without having to pay onerous interest rates.

Chart #9

Finally, Chart #9 shows that the market's expectation for consumer price inflation over the next 5 years is 1.85%, just a bit shy of the Fed's professed target of 2%. That's plenty good enough for government work, as they say. The Fed has delivered 2% CPI inflation (annualized) for the past 20 years, and the market fully expects more of the same. Nobody is worried that the Fed is going to have to tighten unexpectedly.

Until we see the yield curve actually invert, until we see real yields move substantially higher, until we see swap and credit spreads moving significantly higher, and until inflation expectations move significantly higher, a recession is very unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Delaying tax cuts is ballooning the deficit

Trust politicians to do the opposite of what they should do. The overriding problem that is keeping Congress from achieving true, growth-friendly tax reform is concern that lower tax rates would mean a larger budget deficit. Consequently, politicians are trying to "pay for" lowering some taxes by raising others and/or reducing allowable deductions. Instead, they should be focusing on the urgent need to cut taxes in order to reduce the deficit and strengthen the economy.

I discussed this in greater detail in a post last month (Not cutting tax rates is boosting the deficit). Here's the short version of the story: Since February 2016, when there first emerged a growing consensus that the corporate income tax rate was too high and needed to be cut, revenues from corporate and individual income taxes have flatlined, while federal spending has continued to increase. As a result, the deficit has jumped from $405 billion to $683 billion. The logical explanation for the huge shortfall in revenues (despite the fact that tax rates have not fallen and income and profits have continued to increase at healthy rates) is that people and companies have been actively engaged in minimizing their tax liabilities by deferring income, not realizing capital gains, postponing investments, and accelerating deductions. Why? Because there is a reasonable chance that by doing so they will be able to take advantage of lower tax rates in the future. By inference, this strongly suggests that if Congress manages to cut tax rates, then federal revenues will surge and the deficit will decline, and the economy will benefit from increased investment, spurred by lower corporate income tax rates and increased business investment.

Here are some updated charts which fill in the story:

Chart #1

Spending has been rising at a 4-5% annual rate for the past several years. Revenues, however, have gone flat since Feb. 2016. This is notable, because since then, personal incomes and corporate profits have continued to rise, and there has been no cut in anyone's tax rate. A static forecasting model would have projected continued increases in income tax revenues.

Chart #2

The revenue shortfall can be traced to the individual and corporate income taxes. Together, these two important sources of federal revenue have been flat to slightly down since Feb. 2016. Meanwhile, payroll taxes have been increasing at a steady 5% annual rate, which is exactly in line with wages, incomes, and higher contribution limits. Payroll taxes are very difficult to avoid or postpone.

Chart #3

Chart #4

As a percent of GDP, federal spending and revenues are not terribly out of line with historical norms, as Chart #3 suggests. As Chart #4 shows, the federal budget deficit is not out of the range of what we experienced from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.

Chart #5 

In nominal dollar terms, today's budget deficit has grown from $405 billion in the 12 months ended Feb. 2016 to $683 billion in the 12 months ended Oct. 2017. That's an increase of $278 billion, or 68%. At this rate it is going to be a problem fairly soon. Bear in mind, however, that the main driver of the increase in the deficit is the unusually slow growth (especially given that the economy has been growing) in corporate and individual income tax revenues. This could improve quite rapidly if tax rates on corporate and individual incomes are reduced in a meaningful fashion.

People and businesses respond to incentives; that is at the heart of all economic analysis (or at least it should be, but the CBO unfortunately refuses to believe it). Since the chances of lower tax rates are appreciably greater than zero, people and businesses have an incentive to minimize their tax liabilities, and the unusually slow growth of federal revenues supports this thesis. If Congress keeps dragging its feet on this issue, or if a cut in corporate taxes is postponed until 2019 (as the Senate is stupidly proposing), then the deficit is going to get worse, investments are going to be postponed, and the economy is likely to weaken.

The weakness in federal revenues is also a good indication that tax rates on businesses and individuals are too high. The fact that US corporations have avoided repatriating as much as $3 trillion in overseas profits is very strong evidence that corporate income taxes are too high. As my mentor Art Laffer taught me, tax rates that affect behavior in inefficient and uneconomic ways are by definition too high. The best tax rate is the one that people are content to pay, and are least likely to avoid paying. We all know that taxes are a fact of life. But when the marginal rate on corporate profits is 35-40%, and the marginal rate on individual income is 50-65% (as is the case today, including state taxes), taxes are obviously too high, because evasion is high (because the rewards to tax evasion are huge), and revenues are low.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Jobs growth is disappointing, but the tax plan is encouraging

Monthly jobs data are by nature volatile, and they can be revised significantly for up to two years, so you can't give one or even several months of numbers much importance. I like to track the trend in jobs growth over 6- to 12-month periods, since the monthly volatility tends to wash out. By that standard, private sector jobs growth has slowed from 2.5% three years ago to about 1.5% now, and shows no sign of improving despite lots of good news from the stock market. If it weren't for a modest uptick in labor productivity (which has picked up from a low of -0.4% in the year ending June 2016 to 1.5% in the year ending last September), the economy would not be keeping pace with the 2.2% annualized growth rate that it has experienced since the recovery began in mid-2009 (in the year ended last September, the economy registered only 2.26% growth). In effect, a recent, modest increase in productivity—which remains miserably low—is offsetting a slowdown in jobs growth, and the result is continued sluggish growth. Things could be worse, but it's hard to reconcile the ebullience of the stock market with the weak pace of hiring.

To be sure, GDP growth has averaged about 3% in the past two quarters, and there is reason to believe it could could be at least 3% in the current quarter. But until we see a credible increase in the pace of hiring, it is premature to expect a sustained and/or impressive increase in overall growth. That most likely will require successful tax reform. But in the meantime, there are still several encouraging indicators which suggest that the economy is unlikely to enter a recession for the foreseeable future: business investment has picked up a bit, the ISM surveys show impressive results, and real yields are increasing (but only very gradually). Details can be found in the following charts.

The chart above shows the monthly change in private sector jobs. I focus on the private sector, since that is the economy's engine of growth. As the green line suggests, there hasn't been any sustained improvement in the pace of jobs creation for a long time.

As the chart above shows, public sector jobs haven't grown for a long time. This is actually good, since it means that the public sector is shrinking relative to the rest of the economy, and that acts as a tailwind to growth.

As the chart above shows, the growth rate of private sector jobs has been tapering off for the past three years. The current pace, about 1.5% per year, is the slowest we have seen since the recovery got underway. By itself, this is a disappointing indicator. At the very least, it reinforces the fact that the current recovery has been weak because business investment has been weak. Companies are generating healthy profits, but they are not investing much for the future. Without a pickup in investment we are very unlikely to see any pickup in jobs growth or in productivity.

As the chart above shows, private sector investment hasn't grown much at all for the past 10 years. This is one of the root causes of the fact that the current recovery has been the weakest ever.

The October ISM manufacturing survey declined a bit from September, but is still at very strong levels. This strongly suggests that GDP growth in the current quarter will be at least 3-4%. If so, that in turn would be a good indicator that labor productivity continues to improve.

The much larger service sector of the economy is also showing very positive readings in the October ISM survey. The Eurozone is doing well also. We are in a synchronized global upturn, and that is very good.

The manufacturing sector must be feeling fairly optimistic, since a solid majority of those surveyed report increased hiring plans. This bodes well for future jobs growth.

Real yields on 5-yr TIPS have tended to track the economy's real growth rate, as the chart above shows. Real yields have been in a modest uptrend for the past few years; I take this as a sign that the market is very reluctant to price in a strong recovery. According to the bond market, the outlook for the economy has improved only very modestly in the past year or so. No sign of exuberance here! Also, no sign of great expectations for tax reform. The market is still very cautious about the growth outlook.

So what about Trump's tax reform proposal? It looks good, but it could be better. It's very business-friendly (e.g., cutting the corporate tax rate significantly, allowing for immediate expensing, shifting to a territorial system that taxes profits only at their source, and eliminating or limiting many deductions). But it's tainted by keeping a very high rate on top income earners (and a new, even higher rate on those who make more than a million), and by not reducing the tax on capital gains and dividend income. However, these negative effects are somewhat offset by the phaseout of the death tax, the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, and the indexation of tax brackets by future inflation.

Trump's proposal effectively shifts a lot of the corporate tax burden to individuals, which in principle is a good thing, because in theory there should be no tax on businesses. Whatever tax businesses do pay is effectively passed on to consumers, employees, and shareholders—better and more efficient to tax them directly than indirectly. The top rate for individuals is there purely for political purposes; it will do nothing to stimulate investment or the economy because it fails to increase the incentives of the most successful to invest, take risk, and work harder. That's like hobbling those most capable of creating new jobs. It will also mean that those in the middle class who strive to reach upper class status will face a very steep marginal tax rate curve, thus creating new burdens for the middle class. And by creating very different top rates for individuals and corporations, it will result in myriad efforts to arbitrage the difference (e.g., by switching from S corp to C corp status).

It will, however, very likely result in more investment in the US, since it sharply increases the after-tax returns to corporate risk-taking in the US relative to other countries. Lots of capital that has fled high US business tax rates will likely return, with the net result being to increase the ratio of capital to labor in the US. That in turn would have the salutary effect of boosting wage income, because when you add capital to an economy you automatically make labor relatively scarce, and that has the effect of boosting wages. (If you want to invest more in an economy, you need to hire people to run the business.) If this tax proposal passes, we can expect to see more overall growth in the economy, more jobs creation, PLUS higher real incomes for the vast middle class. Unemployment is low, so a significant increase in the demand for labor is almost certain to require higher real wages. Rising real incomes would be a very welcome thing for everyone.

True tax reform requires the elimination of deductions and a lower and flatter tax rate structure. This proposal goes part way on the deduction front and a long way on the corporate tax front. Unfortunately, it makes the individual tax rate structure steeper and more progressive. It's a shame that Republicans couldn't propose something worth doing on all fronts without first caving to potential political opposition. But I won't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This proposal beats the heck out of doing nothing!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Key charts updated

3rd Quarter GDP came in stronger than expected (3.0% vs 2.6%) and a bit stronger than the 2.2% growth rate of the current expansion, but the market remains unconvinced that the US economy is indeed accelerating. Tax reform may be on Congress' table, but I can detect few if any signs that the market is optimistic about it happening, or even if it happens, whether it will be a significant positive for the economic outlook. This may sound odd, to be sure, given that the stock market has been posting serial new, all-time highs since mid-2016. But consider that since its pre-recession (late 2007) peak, the S&P 500 is up at an annualized rate of just over 5%—which is lower than its long-term average of just over 6% per year. The market is doing well, of course, but arguably it's not yet in "off the charts" mode.

I've been posting updated versions of this spectacular chart for many years now. It shows clearly how unique the current business cycle expansion has been in the economic history of the US economy. From 1965 through 2007, the US economy grew at a trend rate of about 3.1% per year. It slipped below this trend during recessions, and exceeded the trend during boom times. But it invariably returned to trend given a few years. (Milton Friedman in 1964 wrote a paper about this, calling it the Plucking Model.) The current expansion has been by far the weakest on record. Relative to its previous trend, the US economy is more than $3 trillion smaller than it might have been had things played out this time as they have before.

What's the cause of this underperformance, especially considering that since late 2008 the Fed has massively expanded its balance sheet? My list of reasons lays the blame on two major factors: 1) an oppressive expansion of government, in the form of increased regulatory and tax burdens, and 2) a shell-shocked market that has yet to regain its former level of confidence in the wake of the worst recession since the Depression.

Thanks to TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities), which were introduced in 1997, we have real-time knowledge of the market's expectation for risk-free, inflation-adjusted returns. (TIPS pay a real rate of interest in addition to whatever the inflation rate happens to be. The price of TIPS varies inversely with the market level of the real yield on TIPS.) As the chart above shows, the level of real yields on TIPS tends to track the economy's real growth rate, much as common sense would suggest. When economic growth was booming in the late 1990s, TIPS paid a real rate of interest of about 4%, since they had to compete with the market's expectation for 4-5% real economic growth. But with the trend rate of growth having now slowed to just over 2%, the real rate of interest on TIPS is only modestly positive: 0.2% for the next 5 years, as of today. If the market thought the US economy were on track to deliver 3%+ rates of growth in the years ahead, I'm confident that the real yield on 5-yr TIPS would be in the neighborhood of 1-2%, if not higher.

The chart above compares the real yield on 5-yr TIPS (red line) with the ex-post real yield on the Fed funds rate. This is akin to viewing two points on the real yield curve: overnight rates and 5-yr rates. In effect, the red line is the market's expectation for what the real Fed funds rate is going to average over the next 5 years. And of course, the real Fed funds rate is the rate that the Fed is actually targeting. As you can see, the market expects only a very modest amount of tightening from the Fed in the years to come; 2-3 rate nominal rate hikes over the next few years, and hardly any hike at all in real overnight rates. That makes sense only if you believe that both the market and the Fed agree that the economy has very limited upside growth potential. If the market thought the economy were set to grow at a 3%+ rate for the next several years, the market would immediately assume—and the Fed would probably agree—that there would be a series of rate hikes in the future, not just 2 or 3.

The chart above compares the real and nominal yields on 5-yr Treasuries (red and blue lines) with the difference between the two (green line), which is the market's expectation of what the CPI will average over the next 5 years. With 5-yr inflation expectations today at 1.85%, the market is only a tiny bit concerned that the Fed will be unable to hit its 2% inflation target. Looking ahead, the market sees pretty much the same amount of inflation that we have seen over the past few decades. Nothing surprising. The market is thus fairly confident that the Fed is not going to do much going forward, and whatever it does, the Fed is unlikely to be too tight or too easy. You may not agree with that assessment, but that's what the market tea leaves are saying.

The chart above suggests that one reason the market is up is because the market is not very worried about whatever is going on in the world right now. The Vix index is relatively low, and 10-yr Treasury yields are near the high end of their recent range. The combination of the two (red line) suggests a lack of fear and a lack of concern that the economy could decelerate meaningfully.

If the market is not very optimistic about the economy's ability to grow at a significantly faster pace, as the charts above strongly suggest, then it stands to reason that a failure by Trump and the Republicans to pass significant, growth-friendly tax reform would not likely result in a significant equity market selloff. But should they be successful, then the market's upside potential could be significant.

I hasten to add, however, that a stronger economy would perforce result in an unexpected rise in real and nominal interest rates (and more rate hikes from the Fed than are currently anticipated). Higher-than-expected rates would obviously depress bond prices, and, in similar fashion, could depress the market's PE ratio (which is the inverse of the earnings yield on equities, and thus similar to a bond price), thus limiting further gains in equity prices to a rate that is somewhat less than the increase in earnings. So even if Trump and the Republicans are successful, we are probably not on the cusp of a monster equity rally. In other words, the next Wall of Worry could be higher-than-expected interest rates, which would put downward pressure on equity prices because they would imply a higher discount rate and a lower present value of future after-tax corporate profits. That downward pressure on equity prices would probably be offset—though not entirely—by rising earnings.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Not cutting tax rates is boosting the deficit

It's pandering season again, with politicians and journalists wringing their hands about how cutting taxes will be a windfall to the rich and result in higher deficits. The truth, however, is that by NOT cutting taxes the federal government is losing money and the economy is suffering from sluggish growth. Cutting taxes would almost surely result in a significant boost in revenues and stronger growth. How do I know this? Since early last year (February 2016, to be exact), when talk of tax cuts began to spread and politicians on both sides of the aisle began to agree that our corporate tax rate—the highest in the developing world—should be cut, revenues from corporate and individual income taxes have flatlined, despite the fact that personal incomes have increased by almost 5%, trailing earnings per share have increased 8%, and the stock market has jumped some 30%.

It's amazing: rising incomes, rising profits, and soaring asset prices have resulted in no increase in revenues to the federal government, even though tax rates weren't cut. How could that possibly happen? Simple: people are rational, and they respond to incentives. Given the incentive that tax rates may be reduced in the future, individuals and corporations have apparently taken steps to reduce their current tax liabilities by delaying income, accelerating deductions, postponing investments, and postponing the realization of profits.

Consider these simple facts: S&P 500 trading volume has plunged over 40% since early last year. One reason stocks are up is that people are increasingly reluctant to sell; on the margin they would rather postpone the realization of their gains in order to minimize their current income tax liability. I can assure you that has been a powerful motivator for me, and I'll wager that there are millions of investors who would agree. It's no wonder that NYSE member firms report a 25% increase in margin balances since Feb. '16 (from $436 billion to $551 billion) after no increase over the previous two years. Need income but don't want to pay capital gains taxes? Just don't sell anything and instead add to your margin balance.

Here are some charts which fill out the story:

The chart above shows the rolling 12-month totals of federal spending and federal revenues. Spending has been increasing steadily for the past several years, roughly in line with the growth of the economy. Revenues, however, stopped growing early last year. As a result, the 12-month deficit has increased from $405 billion in February 2016 to $665 billion in September 2017. That's a whopping increase of over 60%!

The chart above shows the major sources of federal revenues (it excludes things such as excise and customs taxes, and miscellaneous revenues, all of which are down somewhat). The only revenue category that has been increasing steadily for the past few years is Payroll Taxes (i.e., income tax withholding), by about 5% per year. That's very much in line with the growth of wages and salaries, which have been increasing at a 3.8% annual rate since Feb. '16. The thing that is unique with payroll taxes is that individuals don't have much discretion over their reported income. If their salary goes up, their withholding is going to go up as well. But individual income taxes are different. They are impacted by deductions, which can be shifted in time, as well as capital gains taxes, which can be legally postponed indefinitely, simply by not selling an appreciated asset. The rich can employ a variety of strategies to postpone or defer their income.

As it turns out, revenues from individual income taxes have experienced zero growth since Feb. '16, despite ongoing growth in personal income and sharply rising stock prices. Corporate income tax revenues have actually declined by about 10% since Feb. '16, despite an 8% rise in trailing, after-tax EPS over the same period. If you were the head of a large corporation and you thought there was a good chance of a meaningful cut in corporate income taxes, wouldn't you take all available steps to postpone income and accelerate deductions? Is it any wonder that US corporations have refused to repatriate trillions of overseas profits? 

So, despite ongoing growth in the economy and in incomes, plus surging stock prices, federal revenues have declined by about 1% of GDP since early last year, as the chart above shows. A static model would have projected a significant increase in revenues. No one (especially the OMB, which is still enamored of static forecasting models) expected federal revenues to be flat over the past 18-19 months.  But that's what happened.

As the chart above shows, the rolling 12-month federal budget deficit has increased from $405 billion in  Feb. '16 to $666 billion in Sep. '17. Relative to GDP, the federal deficit has increased from 2.4% to 3.4%. And it's ALL due to zero growth in tax receipts, which occurred despite no reduction in tax rates and sizable increases in incomes and capital gains. 

It's only reasonable to conclude that the reason federal revenues have failed to materialize as would have been expected is that people and corporations have taken meaningful steps to postpone income, accelerate deductions, and postpone the realization of capital gains. And they have done all that because they have been thinking there was a decent chance of significant tax reform. 

It's a safe bet that if the tax code is reformed, and marginal tax rates on incomes, capital gains, and corporate profits are reduced, Treasury will see an almost immediate surge in revenue. Tax reform would unleash a wave of profit-taking, a surge of capital gains realizations, a massive redeployment of capital to more productive uses, more investment (reducing taxes increases the after-tax returns to investment, thus prompting more investment), more risk-taking, more work, more growth, and ultimately reduced budget deficits. I'm not talking ideology, I'm just talking basic common sense.

But won't the rich get the bulk of the benefit from lower tax rates? Sure, because the top 10% of income earners pay about 70% of all income taxes, and half the working population pays zero income tax. Anyway, wouldn't you rather let a rich person keep more of his money, instead of giving it to the politicians in Washington? Who do you think would spend a million dollars more productively: a rich person who is already consuming as much as he or she wants, or a politician, who would love to buy votes? When the rich keep more of their hard-earned money, they almost certainly will invest most or all of it, and that's what creates jobs and prosperity. When politicians get a windfall of revenues, they will spend it, and don't forget that over 70% of every dollar that Congress spends goes out in the form of transfer payments (i.e., money given to people who haven't worked for it). 

Congress needs to cut taxes in order to boost revenues and stimulate the economy. Quickly! We can't afford to wait.

UPDATE: Art Laffer has made this same point repeatedly over the years when explaining the mistake that Reagan made in phasing in his tax cuts. If you promise that tax rates will fall in the future, you only weaken the economy today. When lower tax rates make sense, as they do today (especially corporate tax rates) rates need to be cut ASAP, otherwise capital will go dormant, awaiting the lower rates.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Goldilocks dollar?

I've had a number of posts over the years that have looked at the value of the dollar vis a vis other currencies. One common thread in these posts has been a reference to each currency's Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which in theory is the exchange rate which would make prices roughly comparable between two countries. Since the mid-1980s I've used the same methodology for estimating this value, and I've been continually impressed with how it's held up over time. Since I started this blog in late 2008, the dollar has been all over the map: plunging to its weakest level ever in 2011, then soaring over the subsequent five years to its late-2016 high. My PPP analysis says that today the dollar is pretty close to what could be called "fair value" against most of the major currencies, with the notable exception being the Australian dollar, which I estimate to be trading about 25% above my estimate of its PPP value vis a vis the dollar.

To calculate a currency's PPP value against the dollar, I first look for a period—a base year—when prices in that country were roughly comparable to prices in the US. I then adjust the value of the currency in the base year for the difference in inflation between that country and inflation in the US over time. If a country has lower inflation than the US, its PPP value will rise over time, and if a country has more inflation than the US, its PPP value will decline. I should add that I've had occasion to visit each country over the years, and have been able to validate my PPP estimate by subjectively comparing how prices for food, clothing, hotels, etc. compare to US prices (there's an element of judgment at work here, but I think most observers would agree that my estimate of PPP is not too far off—comments pro and con are welcome). As you can see in the charts below, a currency rarely trades at or near its PPP. Instead, most currencies tend to cycle up and down relative to their PPP value, becoming alternately strong and then weak. One important caveat: although divergences between a country's PPP rate and its actual exchange rate tend to close and even reverse over time, PPP should not be used to bet on a currency's future strength or weakness, since it can take years for conditions to change. This is not a trading tool, it's a way to judge how strong or weak a currency is at any one time.

I begin with the Fed's calculation of the dollar's inflation-adjusted value vis a vis a trade-weighted basket of currencies. This is arguably the single best measure of the dollar's overall strength or weakness. The blue line measures the dollar against a basket of more than 100 currencies, while the purple line compares it to a basket of about a dozen currencies. Against a broad basket of currencies the dollar is today is roughly equal to its average since 1973. Relative to the largest currencies, the dollar is about 5-10% above its long-term average. Call it a Goldilocks dollar: neither too strong nor too weak.

The chart above shows how the Euro has tracked its PPP over time. The Euro began in 1997, but I extended its value back in time using the DM as a proxy. Note that the Euro's PPP has trended upwards against the dollar over many decades, a reflection of the fact that Europe has had less inflation than the US. Today the Euro is trading at almost exactly my estimate for its PPP. US visitors to Europe should find that prices there are pretty similar to prices here. Similarly, European visitors to the US should not be surprised to find things cost about the same here as in Europe.

As the first chart above shows, Japan has had a lot less inflation than the US since the late 1970s, and the yen has been very strong throughout most of that period. Some would say the Bank of Japan has been too tight, keeping inflation too low and the yen to strong, and that in turn has curtailed economic growth by making Japanese exports expensive, among other things. In any event, the yen is no longer too strong. As the second chart shows, the yen may now be at a level that is allowing the economy to pick up. Note that the stock market has surged in the past year or so, even as the yen has strengthened a bit.

As the chart above shows, the UK has experienced a lot more inflation than the US in the past several decades; as a result the Pound has been in a long-term, declining trend vis a vis the dollar. Currently the Pound is trading very close to my estimate of PPP. Traveling to the UK in the mid-2000s, as I did frequently, was a painful experience since prices were very expensive. Today it's a much nicer experience.

As the first chart above shows, Canada's inflation has been very similar to US inflation for the past 30 years. However, the Canadian dollar has been all over the map—very weak in the early 2000s, and extremely strong in the late 2000s. The strength or weakness of the Canadian dollar has tended to be the mirror opposite of the dollar's strength or weakness, and both have been highly correlated—until recently—with commodity prices, as the second chart above shows. (Canada positively correlated, the US dollar negatively correlated)

Finally, we come to the Australian dollar, which by my calculations is trading about 25% above its PPP value vis a vis the dollar. Australia continues to benefit from strong commodity prices and from strong demand from China. But the loonie is no longer egregiously strong, as it was some 5 years ago.

At current levels, exchange rates paint a picture of a global economy that is rough equilibrium. No country, with the possible exception of Australia and a few others—is judged by the market to be inherently more attractive than others, on a risk-adjusted basis, and thus worthy of a relatively strong currency. Currency risk has ebbed, as a result, and this may contribute to a continuation of global growth (less risk tends to favor investment, which in turn is the engine of growth). Altogether, not a bad state of affairs.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Recent & notable charts

Here is a collection of charts, in no particular order, that I have updated in the past week and which I think are worth noting. If they have a common theme, it's that economies both here and abroad continue to improve.

The message of this chart is that the real value of the S&P 500 index has increased in line with the physical expansion of the US economy for the past 45 years. As a proxy for the economy's physical size, I've used the American Trucking Association's index of total truck tonnage hauled by the nation's truckers. I note that there have been a few times when equity markets have diverged significantly from the the trucking index, particularly the late 1980s, the late 1990s, and during the depths of the 2008-2009 recession. I would characterize those as periods of excessive optimism and pessimism—sentiment not warranted by the progress of the overall economy. Currently, the advance in equity valuations seems to be very much in line with the growth of the economy.

Today the Japanese stock market reached a two-decade high, after not making much progress on balance for a very long time. It's interesting that this occurred despite the fact that the yen has been strengthening of late against the dollar. As the chart above shows, since 2005 Japanese equities had shown a strong inverse correlation to the value of the yen (e.g., equities would rise as the value of the yen fell, and vice versa). People have made various attempts to explain this inverse correlation, with perhaps the most convincing being that the Bank of Japan has been pursuing misguided monetary policy at times, such that a stronger yen (one result of very tight monetary policy) put a lot of downward price pressure on Japan's industries (because it made their products more expensive to foreign buyers), while a weaker yen mitigated this pressure and eventually became "stimulative." I'm not quite sure what to make of the action offer the past year or so, but I think it may be that the yen has settled into a reasonable valuation zone. Perhaps not coincidentally, my calculation of the Purchasing Power Parity exchange rate between the yen and the dollar is about 114, which is very close to the current exchange rate of 112. This further suggests that central banks have been doing a pretty good job of managing things, and currencies are trading at reasonable levels in general. (The Fed's Real Broad Trade Weighted Dollar index is currently very close to its 45-year average, by the way.) This suggests that the uncertainties that arise from significant currency fluctuations have been mitigated, and that further suggests that economic fundamentals have become more conducive to investment and growth. Reduced uncertainty is almost always good for investors, and for investments, and for economies.

As the chart above shows, property prices for commercial real estate continue to rise, and have clearly surpassed their prior peak. You hear a lot these days about how shopping malls are dying all over the country (thanks to predators such as Amazon), but this suggests that things are not necessarily bad at all in general.

The charts above are based on Bloomberg's calculation of equity market capitalization. I note that non-US equity markets have been strongly outperforming their US counterparts for most of the past year. However, all markets have registered equivalent gains for the past decade or so, on balance. We're in a global recovery that shows every sign of continuing.

The September ISM survey of service sector businesses in the US was extremely strong, as the chart above shows. This could well be one of those random blips, but at the very least it suggests that the US economy continues to improve. It's also worth noting that a similar index of Eurozone service sector businesses has been trending higher for the past several years. It looks like we're in a synchronized global growth cycle.

I've commented often and for years about the curious and continuing dance between gold and TIPS prices, as illustrated in the above chart (see a recent post here). I've also commented on how the real yield on 5-yr TIPS (shown inversely in the chart in order to serve as a proxy for their price) tends to move in line with the real growth trend of the US economy. With 5-yr TIPS real yields only slightly above zero, the market is apparently unconvinced that any good will come from the Trump administration, at least insofar as something that might push the US economy out of its 2% real growth rut. If there is anything that makes a convincing rebuttal to the widespread claims that the market is insanely optimistic and egregiously overpriced, this chart is it. If the market were convinced that the economy was on the cusp of growing 3% per year or more, I think real yields would be significantly higher and gold prices would be significantly lower.

The most recent survey of small business optimism showed a downtick, but the index is still at rather lofty levels. Small business owners are already seeing a reduction in regulatory burdens, as are banks. It may well be the case that entrepreneurs are already gearing up for better things ahead, but that we won't see the results (e.g., more hiring, more investment) for some months to come. These things take time to unfold.

As the chart above shows, car sales had been in a disturbing slump since last year. Fortunately, the September numbers revealed a substantial bounce. This may be just one of those quirks of seasonal adjustments, so we'll have to wait for a few more months to declare victory, but it is nevertheless encouraging.